THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
A RARE SET OF BRUSSELS TAPESTRIES OF THE STORY OF TOBIT AND TOBIAS BY JAN AERTS
The Tobit and Tobias series
It is extremely rare to find such a large group of tapestries surviving together from a single set. The figures are drawn with an impressive, classical sense of mounumentality, which together with the striking grisaille borders with Raphaelesque grotesques and theatrical masks, endows these magnificent tapestries with a heightened sense of drama. This exceptionally well preserved hanging illustrates The Story of Tobit and Tobias, mirrored by The Story of Jacob in the border medallions, and was woven by Jan Aerts, who received his weaving privileges with only eight other workshops in Brussels in 1629. His family is recorded making tapestries between 1550 and 1707, while he was the dean of the craft both in 1633 and 1635. This set, however, represents one of only a small group that is recorded by this mid-sized atelier. Although hardly known today, his work must have been held in high regard at the period, as Genesis sets by him are in the Burgos cathedral and in the St. Rupert and St. Virgil Cathedral in Salzburg and a Ulysses set is in the Swedish Royal Collection.
This apparently unique weaving of The Story of Tobit and Tobias is based at least in part on two series of the same subject that enjoyed great success a century earlier. Neither series is today preserved complete. Of the first and probably older series, which is designed in the manner of Bernard van Orley, eight panels remain in Vienna (L. Baldass, Die Wiener Gobelinssammlung, Vienna, 1920, pls. 9 - 16). Another model was supplied by the 'Master of the Prodigal Son', a follower of Pieter Coecke van Aelst who was working in Antwerp between 1530 and 1560 (A. Volckaert, 'De Meester van de Verloren Zoon en de Brusselse wandtapijtkunst', Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor schone Kunsten Antwerpen, 1987, pp. 93 - 106). The largest set surviving from this second series is in the Tarragona Cathedral (P. Battle Huguet, Los tapices de la catedral primada de Tarragona, Tarragona, 1946, pp.41 - 49).
The Italian influence that permeates this set is already very strongly noticeable in the earlier series designed by Bernard van Orley, who was profoundly shaped by Raphael's highly influential designs for The Acts of the Apostles series which was woven for Leo X in Brussels in 1521. Exhibited before its departure to its patron, the set represented the first big corpus of Italian art to crossover the Alps to the Low Countries (G. Delmarcel, Flemish Tapestry, Tielt, 1999, pp. 142 - 143). The borders unmistakably point to Italy with the Roman scrolling zoomorphic arabesques which possibly first appeared in the famous Duke of Alba Passion set that was woven in the 1520s to Bernard van Orley's designs (two in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, one in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, and one in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The prominent grotesque masks in the corners are inspired by such tapestry sets as Giovanni Stradano's Wild Boar Hunts that were woven in the Florentine Medici Workshops in 1566.
It is interesting to note that two panels, Tobias departing to find a Travelling Companion and Raguel before Tobias and Sarah, appear to be designed by a different hand from the other tapestries of this set. They are undoubtedly part of the same set, but as sometimes the case, a series could be designed by different artists in collaboration, or extended by a differing hand.
The excellent state of preservation, the subject matter as well as relative completeness of this tapestry set suggests an ecclesiastical provenance. Tapestries that served in churches were often only hung for very specific religious processions or church festivities and were spared the excessive and usually destructive light exposure so frequently found on tapestries that remained in private hands.
This tapestry set illustrates The Story of Tobit and Tobias and is mirrored in the medallions of the borders by The Story of Jacob.
The story of Tobit and Tobias is taken from the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. Tobit, a devout Jew, lived in Assyria during the Jewish exile with his wife Anna and his son Tobias. He looked after his compatriots in need and saw to the proper burial to those who died at the hands of the King. He lost his sight when he fell asleep under a tree and bird droppings fell into his eyes. Realising his death was near, he asked his son to collect some money he had stored with a friend in Media. Tobias first went to find a travelling companion, whom he found in the archangel Raphael, disguised as a mortal. After receiving Tobit's blessing, the pair set off with Tobias' dog. At the river Tigris a fish attacked Tobias as he was about to bathe. At the request of Raphael, Tobias removed the heart, liver and gall of the fish and brought it on his journey. At Raphael's suggestion they stayed at Raguel's where Tobias met Sarah, who was possessed by an evil spirit who had already killed seven husbands of hers before the marriage could be consummated. Tobias was given the hand of Sarah and Tobias was able to successfully exorcise the demon with the help of the fish's heart and liver. Raguel gave him half of all his possessions and when Raphael returned after collecting the money, Tobias, Sarah, Raphael and their servants returned to Tobit and Anna. Upon their return Tobias cured Tobit's leucoma with the fish's gall. The archangel, upon being offered a reward by Tobit for all he had done, revealed his real identity, whereupon the father and son fell upon their faces before him.
BY JAN AERTS, SECOND QUARTER 17TH CENTURY